“Hey! One-eye! You dead?” The crouching troll poked Aziz’ lifeless body, lifting his head by the beard to peer into his bloodshot red eye for signs of life.
“Not a very respectful way to treat a corpse,” the djinni remarked from where it stood leaning against Marcus’ cottage.
It was strange, being dead. Everything was pale, drained of colour, and looked as if seen through the haze above hot sand. In some ways it reminded Aziz of the battle trance when he let the djinni take control. Sounds were muted, as though their sources were far away. Yet the stench of battle was gone from his nose, and while he could see the effects of wind on the world around him, he couldn’t feel it against his skin.
Indeed, he couldn’t even feel the hard wooden beams and cold stone walls of the building upon which he was sitting.
“I wish I had cake,” was Aziz’ only reply.
The billowing cloud of black smoke forming the djinni’s body flashed with fiery red laughter as it turned to look down at him. “Cake? You have died, Aziz Azudar. Soon our spirits will be judged and sent to the afterlife, and you wish for cake?”
At least he thought the triad of glowing orbs were its eyes. This was the first time he had ever actually seen a djinni, despite their sharing his body all his life.
“If not for yer presence, I’d’ve been dead long ago. Because of ye, I’ve had to kill. We’ve taken far too many lives together, but now we’re done. Free at last, just like ye always wanted,” Aziz replied with a shrug. “I wanna celebrate with tasty cake. The cream and marzipan one Trudi made for Anna’s birthday last year.”
The djinni snorted, orange lightning leaping about its form.
“What’s going on?” Aziz nodded at a strange white mist creeping into the village square. As more and more gathered, it began to rise into swirling peaks that slowly took on rich, deep colours very unlike the faded world around them.
“Not very savvy, despite that long life of yours, are you? Local spirits. Quite the host of them. They have probably come for the old one.”
“Jaeworl…” Aziz let out a sigh, gazing at the man’s corpse where it lay with a small pile of dirt on it. “If that damned stranger hadn’t shown up-”
“Ever the martyr! Let us die in yer place! Gotta save ev’ryone! Oh no! It’s our fault they died! Bah!” the djinni scoffed. “We could not have saved him. That stranger killed as many trolls as the rest of us combined. You would have been overwhelmed, and I would have been worn down. Death by troll or by stranger is death all the same.”
Aziz gave a resigned grunt, conceding the point. He had long ago learned to accept the inevitability of battle, and his interest was focused on the gathering spirits forming around them. Their shapes varied from trees to animals to sylvan creatures, and even a few crag trolls and forestfolk. There was even a wyrm there, a rainbow streaking down along its silvery back.
“Why’re they here? He’s dead.”
“So are we.”
“Aye, but there’s no legion of Khadosians, Ireha, and Sollim here for us.”
“Do you know the tale of the apothecary and the marid?”
“Can’t recall it, anyway.”
“Of course not.” The djinni snorted derisively. “I miss the Ihreha; the Sollim are so uncultured.”
The troll had slumped against the well, seemingly unaware of the ethereal beings around it, and was staring at the sky. The distant expression on its face was one Aziz had worn many a time, and told him all he needed to know about the creature’s feelings.
It was lost, uncertain where to go or what to do next.
Uragh took a deep breath, staring at the cloud cover slowly breaking apart above. Little rays of sunlight dove through the holes to bathe the treetops and crags in warmth. It was a tranquil scene, though a heavy one.
Around him lay strewn the bodies of twoscore trolls or more.
He had seen a sight like this before, had been at the heart of it. Now as then, he was crippled by wounds and sat immobile amidst the carnage. Then as now, the smell of blood overwhelmed his senses, beckoning the macabre instincts of his ancient kin. This was the second home he had failed; the second family he had lost because he had not been enough.
Memories flashed before his mind. He’d been surrounded by kith, by the clan that had raised him from a swaddling babe. Cut down by the living dead, their lifeless eyes staring at him in silent accusation. They’d been caught unprepared because he’d been too scared to sound the alarm. Uragh had hid like a coward instead.
Not that it had saved him.
He let out a frustrated growl, clawing the ground and trying to push the memories aside. He raked at his skin, wishing he could peel it off and cast it aside. After the attack, he had wished to be big and strong. And though he hadn’t become the biggest or strongest of the trolls in the Wood, he’d been smarter; more cunning; a better fighter than any of them.
Yet it hadn’t been enough.
He looked at Jaeworl’s lifeless body, half-buried beneath what dirt Uragh had been able to pile onto it. The old druid had offered him atonement; penance to be paid through service to the clan. And he had failed.
Because of magic. He slammed his elbow hard against the well, feeling the bone cracking far more than the stones did. Wretched necromancers. Deceitful elf kings. Vile nightmares. Magic!
Even now, there was magic. A gnarled twig was already stretching its way out of the dirt, growing faster even than the bamboo groves of the deeper Wood.
Uragh slumped back against the cold, hard stones behind him and gazed once more to the darkening sky above. Physically exhausted, emotionally drained… A great yawn stretched his maw wide before he closed his eyes to rest.
Perhaps he wouldn’t wake. Perhaps this time the wounds would prove stronger than his troll blood…
He was surrounded by darkness. But it wasn’t the dark of night, nor even that of a deep cave. It was a darkness not only of sight, but of sounds and smells. His skin stung as though being sucked on by a thousand leeches.
He was dead, that much he knew.
Yet despite the darkness he could see clearly before him a humanoid form looming. Despite skin of dark metal, it stood out against the blackness beyond as though a silhouette of light. Veins of glowering magma snaked across its back and arms, disappearing into a swirl of black clouds cloaking its lower half.
It pulled back an arm, flinging it forth to hurl a swarm of angry red lightning. He was unsure if it crackled or if it was merely his imagination filling in the sound that should have been but was not. Before he could figure it out, the lightning faded away into nothingness, prompting the figure to ready its other hand; now engulfed in flames.
But before the fireball could be thrown, it died down until it, too, was gone. As the creature turned to gaze at its hand he caught sight of a trio of ovals set in its featureless face, glowing as though a triangle of setting suns.
“Hey, haboob, calm down.”
The cyclops looked up at the strange giant from under a bushy brow, calmly standing in the blackness with arms folded across his chest. He knew that one, recognized him, but could not place him. Something was pulling at his thoughts, keeping them jumbled and incoherent.
Something was not right.
“A thousand years and a year, so shall I be caught.
Chained by faith abandoned, serf to those I fought.
When shadows eat the Sun, death the cage shall break.
And the Speaker holds the key to ancient powers wake.”
“Yes, yes, yes.” The one-eyed man waved his hand dismissively, yet his mouth did not move as he spoke. “Ye’ve been harping on about that prophecy since forever. Ain’t no ‘shadows eating the Sun’ when we died, anyway. Besides, what makes ye so sure it’s even about yerself?”
And how could they speak in a place with no sound?
“I am Djinn! I am magic incarnate! I will not be denied!” The giant turned fully to the man. Lightning arced about its form in angry hues of orange and red, and the glowing veins about its torso flared as it bristled at him. Yet the man looked more bored than intimidated.
“We’re dead. Welcome to the afterlife. But we didn’t have the good sense to die under the Second Sun. And that-” he gestured at something in the direction the giant had been hurling lighting earlier “-is not a caravan of souls.”
Their voices faded as his attention shifted away, looking past them to see what they had been gesturing at.
What he found was a strange sight. A pale column of white stood beyond them, glowing in the dark and wavering unsteadily like grass under water. With nothing but black around them, it was impossible to tell if it was near or far, but he could tell that atop it rested the head of a person. Skin that was pale as snow, shining like the pillar below… No, not pillar. Body, armless and wrapped in a robe of white.
The blackness seemed to seep from the entity’s scalp as though it was its hair, and watching them intently were eyes even blacker still.
This was no afterlife. This was somewhere else; something else.